As 2020 falls into a slow-motion death spiral, like a bad cinematic supervillain delivering his final monologue before reaching for the detonator, it’s time to reflect back on the highs and lows of the year… and then the really low bits, and then the bits that were lower than those. Yes, 2020 sucked. Martial arts practice with other people became one of those things we all used to do, everybody stayed in their home and talked to each other on Zoom and our physical and metal health suffered. And whatever happens with the new vaccines on the way, the world will never be the same again.
One of the things that kept me going in 2020 were the podcasts. Trapped at home in various flavour of lockdown meant people had more time than ever to record podcasts and we all had more time to listen to them as we waited in the food queues, enjoyed our regulatory 1 hour walk in the fresh air or silently screamed under the blankets.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the shows that deserve my thanks for making 2020 slightly less awful than it could have been.
Martial Arts Studies
It’s like martial arts, but for people who want to think and talk as well as punch people in the head. Crazy, right? The ever-insightful Professor Paul Bowman is your host and he introduces a different guest each episode who has been doing research into an area of the martial arts you probably didn’t even know existed. This is a high-brow listen, so expect to have your horizons expanded and your tolerance for deconstructionism tested. At some point in the year I was on this podcast, so there’s that, too. Martial Arts Studies.
OH GOD, WHAT NOW?
Brexit, brexit, brexit. Not only did we have to suffer the ravages of the COVID 19 pandemic in the UK, but we had to suffer an equally pernicious virus called Brexit simultaneously. A handful of super hard-right millionaires and billionaires had hoodwinked a statistically significant percentage of the population into believing it was in their interests that they should be able to keep on avoiding paying any tax in the UK. It turns out that while they were very good at winning referendums and putting the blame on foreigners for all the aweful things that they had in fact helped create, they were just not that particularly competent at negotiating trade agreements. We narrowly avoided a hard brexit by accident, but are left with a trade agreement that puts us in a far worse position than we have been when we were still a member of the EU and that also removes the right of UK people to live and work in 22 European countries. It’s been an unmitigated disaster, but the sane and rational voices on this podcast have enabled me be clearer about some of the frustrations I have with the government. OH GOD, WHAT NOW?
Fights gone by w/ Jack Slack
While most sports ground to halt in 2020, MMA continued by, well, by not really caring too much about fighter health and safety in much the same way that MMA has always not cared too much about fighter health and safety (hey, they’re all going to end up with brain damage, anyway, right?) To beat COVID restrictions the UFC upped sticks and moved to a “fight island” in Abu Dahbi, where events could be staged with a higher degree of COVID safety and we had some fantastic matches, title defences, knockouts and submissions throughout the year. 2020 fights from Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson, were particularly memorable. Should MMA really have continued in 2020? It’s hard to say, but plenty of fighters contracted COVID 19, and at least 2 now have long-term complications that have delayed their next appearances. Jack Slack has continually been the most insightful commentator on MMA, in fact, without his Fights gone by podcast I wonder if I’d watch anywhere near as much MMA at all. The level of detail he provides on the fight game can really change your appreciation of the job fighters are doing, and improve your own martial arts. What’s more, he’s British. Fights gone by
Robby The Robot’s Waiting: The Sci-Fi Podcast
As well as podcasts and MMA, another thing that has kept me going in 2020 is sci-fi. I’m currently enjoying the latest series of The Expanse on Amazon Prime, for example. As cinema releases have stalled, streaming services have really come into their own, but they have so much content its easy to miss something you would like, which is why I’ve found the Robby The Robot’s Waiting podcast so valuable – it keeps you abreast of what’s happening in the world of sci-fi, what you should be watching now and what’s coming soon. The hosts all have a connection with SFX magazine, and I know quite a few of them personally from the publishing industry. It’s a perfect fix of weekly Sci-Fi goodness.
I’m going to give a special mention to Stephan Kesting for his Strenuous Life podcast. Stephan is a BJJ guy, but also enjoys things like Kayaking around the Candian wilderness on his own. (I think we can all see the attraction of that right now!) And while I don’t like every episode of his show (it depends on the guest very much) Stephan has been a consistent voice of reason in the BJJ community during the global pandemic, which has seen a lot of prominent BJJ personalities slip into the netherworld of conspiracy theories and casual racism. For some reason, BJJ people seem attracted to conspiracy theories, and it’s very frustrating to have to deal with them, along with everything else.
A rare and welcome return to dead tree media for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fans everywhere.
Since the advent of DVD, and easily downloadable video tutorials from the likes of Kesting’s own Grapple Arts website and sites like BJJ Fanatics, new books that teach you BJJ techniques in a step-by-step manner have dwindled to the point of non-existence. Back in the day we had masterworks in print, like Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro and Kevin Howell, and Advanced Brazilian Jiujitsu Techniques by Marcelo Garcia and Marshal D Carper* to guide us. But VHS and then DVD took over, which is why I’m so pleased to see this new release from Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting. Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu is the first new book about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to buck the trend and feature photos and step-by-step techniques, released in years.
You might be wondering what the point of a printed book teaching you BJJ is in the modern age of YouTube and steaming video, so let me offer you some reasons for its existence:
1) You don’t need a phone, app, computer or VR headset to enjoy a book. You can take it wherever you go and dive into any page anytime, anywhere. Talk about “instant access”!
2) Some people learn better from printed material – reading puts you in a different headspace. There’s also just something nice about a real, physical book that you can hold in your hands.
3) A DVD of this material (“Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu”) already existsfrom Grapple Arts, so this book acts as an additional resource.
4) Goddamn it, I’m just tired of all BJJ instructionals being in video format these days! It’s so nice to go back to something more old school.
So, as you can probably tell, I really wanted to like this book. I work in print magazines as my day job, so I love print with the sort of passion that Gordan Ryan normally reserves for protein shakes. I want to see the printed medium continue for as long as possible. So, as a fan of the original Nonstop Jiu-jitsu video instructional from Grapple Arts, I was beyond excited to hear that a print version was now available. And at 260 pages, with literally hundreds of full colour photos it is clearly a labour of love for the authors Kesting and Mullins. Yet alas, (alas!), it is not without its problems, of which there are many, but more of that later.
First though, who are Kesting and Mullins, and why should you care what they have to say about BJJ? As mentioned, Kesting runs the Grapple Arts business of BJJ instructional videos. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and purchased many of his products. They’re all good, high-quality productions and usually done in conjunction with another teacher, who has a unique or valuable insight into the world of BJJ. Kesting usually takes the role of uke in the videos, while the featured instructor takes you through his techniques, or concepts. The featured instructor here is Brandon “Wolverine” Mullins, a BJJ world champion who is known for his clear instructional style and showing you complete gameplans, rather than isolated techniques, so he will show you a guard sweep, followed by a guard pass and then a submission, rather than techniques that leave you hanging and not knowing quite what comes next. Mullins isn’t one of the really famous BJJ guys out there, but he’s no stranger to competition and is a very competent teacher.
So what’s my beef? Well, the problem is that the book smacks of self publishing. A quick scan of the credits page reveals they didn’t employ an editor or a sub editor, and it really shows. Not only could almost all the text in the book do with a good edit to make it punchier, tighter and more interesting to read, there are a lot of unforgivable grammatical errors that have crept in, mainly in the introduction text admittedly, but that’s the thing you read first, so it creates a very bad first impression. But while things improve in later sections, typos are prevalent throughout the work, and if like me you can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes in a finished book, you’ll be tearing your hair out. I have a lot of sympathy for the authors here – working in print I know how hard it is to spot your own mistakes. You go “word blind” to your own writing. There are probably typos in this review that I’ve missed, but I can easily go back and fix them because it’s a blog post. In contrast, once something has been published in print it can’t be changed without issuing an expensive reprint – it’s really a very unforgiving medium, and not getting another pair of eyes to look at every single page before you send it to the printers is always fatal. Heck, I’d have done it for free myself if only they’d asked me!**
Some examples of typos from the introduction:
Maybe you’re not be the sort of person who cares about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. You just want to get to the great content, right? Well, I have some issues there as well.
I can’t fault the quality of the instruction presented. Like I said before, I was a fan of the original video series. But the way it’s presented here could be improved. For a start, the book is an odd shape (21.5cm across and 21.5cm high). There’s a reason why most books generally aren’t square – they’re really awkward to design for and you can see how this has created problems. When they have a full page of text, they’ve used only 1-column, so a line is uncomfortably long. The margin on the outside edge of the page is very tight too, and it all makes reading difficult, as you have to track your eye back a long way to the left to find the start of the next line. A 2-column grid would have made scanning text much easier.
The pages of photos have a different problem. Following from one step to the next is difficult, as they often have alternative shots of the same technique on the page. They’ve put numbers on photos so you can see where to move your eye to next, but knowing where to go next is not intuitive. They also expect you to read the explanation in the text box at the top of the page, then move your eye back to the correct picture to see what is meant, then move your eye back to the text box at the top to read the next step, and so on. It’s all a bit awkward.
All credit to Kesting and Mullins for spending the time to re-shoot every single technique in detail and presenting colour photos of each step (that’s not cheap to do in print). The photos are clear and accurately show the techniques. They avoid the classic mistake of both weaing the same colour gi, but the printing is a bit too dark, meaning there are some shadows and dark patches on Kesting’s blue gi that are hard to make out, as you can see in my photos. (This probably looked fine on screen when they were creating the book, but the printed version can differ).
The design has competing systems of classification too, which makes it even more confusing. Sometimes a “what not to do” type photo has a red thumbs down icon on it, at other times it is crossed out with a big red “x”. Why not just pick one system and stick with it?
In their enthusiasm the authors have tried to squeeze too much into this book, both in terms of the number of photos on each page, and the amount of material covered. There are 3 big sections – 1. Fundamental movements, 2. Butterfly guard, 3. De La Riva guard – and to fit it all in, something important has been lost, which is context. In the video version of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu, Mullins explains why he’s doing each technique, usually in response to the opponent defending his previous effort. Here you don’t know when or why you would use the techniques shown. For instance, when you have butterfly guard, what makes you choose either the hook flip to x guard or the hook flip to phantom choke? It’s not entirely clear. A short piece of text explaining the context before diving into the steps would have made all the difference.
To give you an idea of how much content there is here, the table of contents alone runs to 6 pages! Complaining there’s too much value in a book sounds like an odd gripe, but this book could easily have been split into 3 different books, with more room to really let each subject breathe, and it would have been all the better for it.
The first section (which seems unsure if it’s called Fundamental Movements, or Advanced Fundamentals) is based around the fundamental movements of Jiu-Jitsu, like the technical stand up, sit through, hip escape, butt double and rolling forward and backwards, and then shows you how these movements can be applied in techniques. In a section aimed at beginners the applications are actually quite involved and ramp the difficulty level up very quickly – for example, a rolling omoplata from the armbar position in side control, anybody? As a more experienced Jiu-jitsu player I personally loved the high-level technical content here, but a real beginner might be a bit out of their comfort zone. My only criticism is that they show plenty of applications for all the movements except the hip escape (or shrimp) and bridge, which only get one application each – regaining closed guard from half guard for the shrimp and bridging from mount. I would have liked to have seen a shrimping escape from side control here, and another mount escape added for completeness sake.
The second section goes on to cover butterfly guard. Butterfly is a really good guard to use against an opponent who is trying to pass your guard from his knees. The standard butterfly sweep is shown, plus a plethora of options for when they post a hand or leg. Quite naturally this leads into all sorts of x guard material, back takes and shin sweeps. The section starts with Mullins’ trademark aggressive butt double attack from butterfly, which is a very proactive way to get the action going against a stalling opponent, and as such is nicely suited to competition. Because Mullins teaches in a game plan-based system, a lot of this chapter is devoted to guard passing after you’ve swept them from butterfly guard.
The final section covers the De La Riva guard, which shows you what to do against a standing opponent. The majority of the section is on how to attack with the ball and chain sweep, and follow ups depending on how the opponent defends. Again, the jiu-jitsu shown is attacking and aggressively non-stop, in the sense that he links together guard sweeps, passes and submissions.
Throughout all of the book’s sections, Mullins drops in some tips on motivation, competition strategy and his general thoughts on BJJ. It’s welcome advice, but I think it could have done with an editor to make it more concise.
After all this moaning you probably think I’m going to recommend staying well clear of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu (or is it “Non-stop Jiu-Jitsu“? Even the name of the book is editorially styled in two different ways, one on the cover without a hyphen and another on the footers of each page with a hyphen – argh! Just choose one way and stick with it), because of all the editorial problems, but I’m not. I’m recommending it because this book is actually glorious!
I love seeing BJJ back in print, and despite the issues I’ve mentioned**, it didn’t stop me from loving this book. If you’re looking for some new ideas for a game to play from butterfly or de la Riva, then you’ll find inspiration here that will last a lifetime, and you can easily add to your game. And, godamn it, it’s a real book about BJJ and we should celebrate that fact.
(* If you’re interested, I consider Marcelo Garcia’s book to be the gold standard in terms of these types of instructional BJJ manuals. Its production standards are first rate, from the quality text and explanations to the brilliant photos. Sadly it went out of print a long time ago.)
(** Lads, if you are reading this and want to do an updated version 2 of this book without all the typos, then please do, but please, please hire an editor this time!)
As you’ll know from listening to our “History of Kempo and Jiujitsu” podcast episdoes, Japan was opened up to the West in 1852, but it would take a while yet for Japanese martial arts to reach British soil. As revealed in the article “The Golden Square Dojo and its place in British Jujitsu history“ by David Brough, in issue 10 of Martial Arts Studies, the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture of Edward William Barton-Wright was the first martial arts club to introduce Jujutsu to the U.K in London (along with other things, like Savate), but it quickly seeded ground to more traditional Jujitsu dojos in Britain. Jujutsu was originally taught in the Golden Square Dojo in Piccadilly Circus, which opened in 1903, and was run the teacher Sadakazu Uyenishi.
Here’s a short film about him – the forgotten grappler:
A reanimated film of photos of Sadakazu performing jujutsu techniques from his “Textbook of Ju-jutsu” in 1905 exists on YouTube:
What I find interesting is how much of jujutsu practice was about performance in the early 20th centuary – (perhaps this is a role that is filled by BJJ sport competitions and Judo in the Olympics today). Early Jujutsu teachers from Japan toured the UK trying to create a name for themselves, putting on shows in dance halls, taking on local wrestlers in prize fights and performing feats of strength. It was very much like a circus attraction. In Brazil this exact approach lead to the creation of Brazilian Jiujitsu, but in the UK, its indigenous wrestling (things like Catch, Devonshire wrestling and Cornish wrestling) and jujitsu seemed to stay in their own lanes, and a hybrid creation never really saw the light of day.
By 1930s the Golden Square Dojo had been demolished and Judo had taken over from Jujitsu as the dominant version of the art in the UK, although various Jujitsu societies connected to the Golden Square continued to this day.
Bartitsu is best remembered today because of Sherlock Holmes being a practitioner, and is seen as the fusion of Victorian gentleman attire (including the walking stick or umbrella) and Japanese Jiujitsu, but also included other martial arts, including French Savate.
Bartitsu died out, although a modern revival appears to be well underway. Judo remained the dominant strand of Jujutsu practice in the UK for many decades, although it mainly seems to be practiced by children, while Jujutsu, in its Brazilian variant (BJJ) seems to have taken over as the dominant practice amongst adults today. (N.B. I don’t have figures to support that assertion, but that’s my strong impression).
Professor Brough was also interviewed about this article on the Martial Arts Studies podcast, which contained another interesting fact that I didn’t know – there are records of the use of the walking stick in Britain as a self defence style going back to 1830, pre Bartitsu. Professor Brough will be producing more research on that in the future. Sounds dapper!
And let’s not forget, the image of the Victorian gentleman with his walking stick/umbrella fighting off attackers saw something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to The Avengers. Ka-pow!
Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu craze took over the nation’s interest in martial arts in the 70s, but in modern times things have swung back to jiujitsu again, thanks to the popularity of MMA, from the 90s onwards.
Even martial arts movies seem to have swung back to jujutsu, with things like the John Wick series, Jason Bourne and just about every fight scene in any movie being required to contain at least one armbar on the ground in it. I think Sadakazu Uyenishi would look at martial arts today and be pleased with what happened and the influence his Jujustu had.
This is a video created by the Gracie Academy, it’s pretty long, but it’s got the essentials of BJJ for self defence in there, and why not learn it? What have you got to lose?
“But all fights start on the feet!” Well, as the video of a real attack in the clip shows – you can be attacked at any time, anywhere and potentially by anyone. You could already be sitting on public transport. You could be attacked from behind and end up on the floor. If you don’t know how to get up from there then you’ve got a problem.
I’ve been in conversation with Miika Wikberg of Baji Wasa, Finland. Baji is a martial art that shares a lot of similarities with Xing Yi. One of those is the idea of Tiger as a body attribute/strategy.
Here’s Miika talking about Tiger Head in Baji:
I really like this video because it’s very similar to how Tiger Xing works in Xing Yi – notice that Miika is going from a position that’s outisde the range of his opponent’s attacks, straight into an almost body to body position. That’s the flavour of Tiger Xing in Xing Yi.
The only real difference is that in my Xing Yi we call it “Tiger Embrace” and it’s more about the embracing quality of the arms than anything you’re doing with your head. As an observation of how a tiger moves it’s spot on though – the body follows the head. I’ve heard other Xing Yi lines talk about Tiger head as well, but in ours we emphasis the embracing quality of a tiger’s attack more – you can see what I mean in this video I shot over the summer:
In Xing Yi you use the Tiger embrace to do as much damage as you can as you close the distance, once the distance is closed you have the final bite to the neck, which is expressed in Xing Yi usually as a choking method. Knowing a bit of BJJ can be helpful here!
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.” ― Bruce Lee
Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.
That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.
I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.
The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.
But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.
Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be.
Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.
In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.
If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.
Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.
Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.
I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.
There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:
A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.
But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.
As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.
I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.
Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.
And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.
Byron is an English-speaking Beijing native who has been integrated into the martial culture of the city for about 2 decades. He speaks Chinese and has a deep understanding of these martial arts and the culture from which they emerged. I’d recommend him if you’re looking for instruction on Xing Yi and Bagua online.
“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics
I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.
One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.
I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.
The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.
Before the Internet, back in the early 90s, there were only a few books on the subject of Tai Chi in the West, so the authors of these books achieved a kind of fame and notoriety that wasn’t really proportional to their actual importance, or impact on the Tai Chi world. Or maybe their fame became proportional because of the books themselves, in a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to say.
Either way, one book title that always stuck in my mind was “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-cultivation”.
This idea of “self cultivation” is kind of the main reason that people practice Tai Chi in the modern world. It’s kind of like exercise, but a little deeper, involving something a little more like meditation. This idea of using eastern spirituality to go on a personal odyssey, or journey into your self is sold to us all the time in the world of Tai Chi, Yoga and health or spiritual practices.
The fact is, it’s nonsense. I hate to break to to you, but individually, we are really not that deep. Scratch our surface and there’s really not that much to us. The idea of cultivating yourself is really a huge waste of time. Our depth lies in our relationships to other people, places and non-human animals. And to find our connection to the world, to the land, the first thing you need to do is get rid of this little self that you’ve been busy cultivating with your various yoga, tai chi and martial arts practices.
Just look at what the Zen or Tao masters of old wrote. They were telling us this constantly in their writings.
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
– Shunryu Suzuki
One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.
The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.
– Koun Yamada
Those were literally the first three quite in an article I just searched up called “25 Zen Quotes“.
I feel like I could quote any chapter of the Tao Te Ching too, but let’s go with chapter 3:
The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.